Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rum Review: Westerhall Plantation Rum from Grenada

Westerhall Plantation rum is one of the few rums made on the island of Grenada. The Westerhall Plantation has a long history stretching back to the 1700s, passing through numerous hands over the centuries. The estate is still littered with relics of the history of sugar and rum production on the island. Their Plantation rum is special in that it is produced from both molasses and sugar cane juice, giving it characteristics of both molasses-based rums and cane juice rhum agricole. Due to the very limited production of this rum, each bottle is hand labeled with a batch number and their literature suggests that there is a certain amount of batch-to-bacth variation, which means that like single barrel whiskies, trying more than one bottle could present interesting differences.

Westerhall Plantation Rum - Batch 8001

Nose: cookies, toasted oak, grass, vanilla

Taste: sugary sweetness up front, a bit of alcohol mid-palate, swiftly shifting into chocolate, spice, pepper and grass going into the finish

Finish: bitter chocolate, pepper

This is a good rum that reminds me a bit of Scarlet Ibis minus the hogo, but I feel like it could use just a bit more depth. While the 43% bottling strength is higher than a lot of rums, in keeping with it's rhum agricole character, something over 45% would probably let the flavors within the spirit shine forth more strongly. However, they do get big points for not chill filtering their rum, which is evidenced by the wisps of precipitate that can be seen if you give the bottle a swirl. While some seem to think this means something is wrong with the spirit, it just means that some components of the rum will slowly come out of solution, the upside being that some of these compounds enhance the flavor and mouth feel of the spirit. I'd be curious to find out the size of the barrels that are used to age this rum, as the 'toasted oak' flavor is one that I associate with spirits aged in small barrels that give more wood contact, though the light color of this rum suggests that it didn't spend too long in whatever barrels it was aged in. Given the comparison to Scarlet Ibis, something in the 4-5 year range seems likely as it doesn't have any sharp edges, but retains some of the agricultural notes from its cane juice base.

As I suggested a while ago, I think Westerhall makes an interesting alternative to traditional rhum agricole in cocktails calling for Martinique rhum. It also makes a good base on its own in classic-style cocktails:

A Night in St. George
1.5 oz Westerhall Plantation rum
0.25 oz King's Ginger liqueur
1 dash Angostura bitters
6 drops Herbsaint or Pernod

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for 15 seconds, strain into a chilled cocktail glass and squeeze a strip of orange peel over the drink.

On the nose, the orange oil comes front and center, melding with the sweeter notes of rum and honey, with wisps of spice from the ginger liqueur, bitters and Herbsaint. The initial sip is lightly rummy with a bit of honeyed sweetness, which leads into sharper flavors of ginger, finishing on the drier spice of the bitters, with the Herbsaint licorice dancing around everything else.

Overall this is a nice, relatively light cocktail. The Westerhall plays a supporting, rather than a leading role, providing a delicate base for the other, more rugged, flavors. It is a sort of less fruity homage to Don the Beachcomber, whose drinks often featured the combination of Angostura bitters and a few drops of absinthe substitute. Add in a bit of lime juice, squint heavily, and this starts to look a bit like the Q.B. Cooler, one of his early classics.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Classic Cocktails: the Mamie Taylor

The Mamie Taylor is one of the early steps towards what would become one of the most popular cocktail forms during the mid-20th century - the highball. Named after a famous Broadway actress who starred in productions around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the drink had a brief burst of popularity and then just as quickly sank into obscurity. More recently it was resurrected by the inestimable Ted Haigh, also known as Dr. Cocktail, in his essential book Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails.

Mamie Taylor
2 oz scotch whisky
0.75 oz lime juice
0.5 oz ginger syrup
0.5 oz simple syrup

Build in a chilled pilsner glass full of crushed ice. Top with soda water and stir briefly to combine the ingredients. Add an extra 0.5 oz of scotch if you want the whisky to stand out a bit more.

The smell of the whisky's smoke drifts up gently from the drink. The sip leads off with a bit of lime and the carbonic acid of the soda water, followed by a burst of sweeter ginger flavors, then the scotch finally shows up with its smoke, melding nicely with the spicier elements of the ginger, which ends the drink on a surprisingly dry note given the amount of syrup that goes into it.

This is another drink where I felt like Isle of Skye 8 blended whisky fits really well. It has a nice balance between sweetness and smoke, plus a price point that makes me quite willing to toss it into cocktails. As I noted, this whisky dovetails rather nicely with the spicy ginger syrup.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Whiskey Review: Single Barrel Bourbons, Part II

Next up in a series reviewing single barrel bourbons are a couple that don't provide quite as much information as one expects from a single barrel bottling. Usually the point is that you get a healthy dose of info about things like the barrel number, how old the barrel is, when the whiskey was distilled, when it was bottled and so forth. These two, while labeled as single barrel bourbons, provide significantly less information, making it harder to compare bottle to bottle. However, it may be that I'm just missing something, so if there's a secret code on the bottles, please let me know.

Eagle Rare 10 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon

Nose: brown sugar, toffee, nougat, some ill-defined fruitiness, corn, cookies, vanilla, which becomes buttery brown sugar-sweetned porridge with mild oak after adding water

Taste: sugary sweet up front, mild rye spiciness, peppery chocolate and tannic oak mid-palate, which builds towards the back of the throat, then fades into the finish, which becomes creamier and gains some citrus and more oak in the mid-palate after the addition of water

Finish: long but light, a rye glow with a hint of orange, rum and oak

Eagle Rare Single Barrel Bourbon is basically a step up from Buffalo Trace's basic bourbon. It's made with the same low 8% rye mash bill and bottled at the same 90 proof, but has been aged for a significantly longer time and theoretically offers some barrel-to-barrel variation. However as I noted at the beginning, the bottles don't indicate which barrel they came from, so it's hard to tell whether a given bottle is from the same or a different barrel. Interestingly, this bourbon reminds me a fair bit of El Dorado 15 Year, in as much as Eagle Rare is kind of rummy and they're both relatively sweet and have a strong oak component to their flavor. However that also means that there are times when I feel like ER has strayed a bit too far in the oak direction. But if you like whiskies with a bit more astringency, this is a solid buy at $30 or so.

Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon

Breaking with my usual tradition, I'm going to do this in two parts, because it seems like this bourbon shows two distinctly different faces at different times

Part 1

Nose: buttery toffee and caramel, corn sweetness, vanilla

Taste: moderately sweet up front, fading into bittersweet chocolate

Finish: long and sweet

This Elmer T. Lee is dessert bourbon. I'm not even kidding. It smells like candy. It reminds me of a wheated bourbon like Weller, but with less perceptible oak influence.

Part 2

Nose: warm caramel, some corn sweetness and a bit of rye, fruit and oak, with more oak and vanilla coming out after dilution

Taste: briefly sweet up front, segues into slight sourness, then a burst of chocolate and rye spice, fading into a slight but not unpleasant bitterness, which with a bit of water gains more sweet honey up front, chocolate in the mid-palate and oak near the back after adding a few drops of water

Finish: medium, honey and bitter chocolate with pepper, which becomes a bit more rye-focused with some dark fruits after adding water

As best I can find, Elmer T. Lee is made with the Buffalo Trace #2 mash bill, which has about 15% rye. This puts it roughly in the middle of the pack for bourbons. Which makes the fact that it tastes almost like a wheated bourbon at times rather peculiar. While I initially chalked this up to a previous mistaken belief that this was a low rye bourbon, additional tastings suggest that it really does just taste different at different times. There's no age statement, though reports I've seen suggest that it could be anywhere from 10 to 14 years old. The copy on the bottle claims that the barrels are dumped and bottled whenever they are determined to be at their peak. And as with the Eagle Rare, there are also no indications of what particular barrel each bottle comes from. So while there should be barrel to barrel variation, it'll be hard to figure out what you're getting with this bourbon. But in large part that's just the spirits geek in me talking. Ultimately this is still a fantastic bourbon and a pretty decent value given that it's usually priced in the low-30s. Especially in its sweet modes, I find this to be an eminently drinkable whiskey.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tiki Classics: Last Rites

This drink is another from the Mai Kai in Florida, invented by Mariano Licudine in the late 1950s.

Last Rites
3 oz aged rhum agricole
0.75 oz lime juice
0.5 oz passionfruit syrup
0.25 falernum syrup

Combine all ingredients with a handful of ice, blend for 5 seconds and pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass with more crushed ice.

The sip opens with a bit of lime and the tropical fruitiness of the passionfruit syrup. The lighter rhum agricole comes in first,  then finishes with a blend of the falernum spices and the dry oak of the aged rhum agricole.

This is a very rhum-focused drink and you'll need something with a decent amount of age to make it work well. Either of the Neisson rhums pictured are a good choice. I made it with a 50/50 split to get a good balance between the fresher cane notes of the Élevé Sous Bois and the woodier Réserve Spéciale. You could also go with Rhum J.M. Élevé Sous Bois or VSOP or Clément VSOP.

For an interesting variation, you can also make a nice bourbon drink in this mold. Just swap out the lime juice for lemon and pick a whiskey with a healthy dose of oak in it, like Elijah Craig 12 Year or Eagle Rare Single Barrel. The spice notes from the falernum go well with bourbon and the result is quite balanced.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Whiskey for St. Patrick's Day: Bushmill's Black Bush

I've mentioned this Irish whiskey before, but didn't have sufficient experience with whisk(e)y to really appreciate what it has to offer. Black Bush is the first step up from Bushmills' basic white label whiskey. The distillery states that it's composed primarily of malt whiskey that has been aged in oloroso sherry casks and supplemented with grain whiskey aged in ex-bourbon barrels. There's no information about the exact split, but my feeling is that it's probably 60-80% malt whiskey with the balance made up with grain whiskey. While there's no age statement on the bottle, it's my guess and that of other bloggers that this is probably 8-10 years old.

Bushmill's Black Bush

Nose: malty, with bourbon-y grain character, vanilla and a hint of sherry fruitiness

Taste: exceedingly smooth, with the sweetness coming mid-palate followed by bittersweet chocolate and sherry influence

Finish: bittersweet chocolate, malt and bourbon

Given where it's positioned, this is a pretty good whiskey. It usually runs ~$30, which is quite reasonable given its age and malt whiskey content. I'd actually suggest this as a good choice for a bourbon drinker who wants to get a sense for what malt whisk(e)y has to offer, as it combines some of the best features of both malt and grain whiskies. It's not going to blow away a seasoned single malt drinker, but I don't think that's what Bushmills was striving for. My only quibble is that I wish they bottled it at a slightly higher proof. With the triple distillation that they tout all over the place and the reasonable amount of time that the whiskey has spent in barrels, all of the rough edges should already be smoothed off. With a bump in ABV this would be a standout. But with that said, it's designed to be a step up from their basic whiskey, so Bushmills probably doesn't want to make it too challenging. For that I might have to try their 1608 anniversary edition whiskey, which is bottled at a much healthier 46%.

Reach Across the Sea
1 oz Irish whiskey
1 oz Scotch whisky
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.5 oz ginger liqueur
0.25 oz honey syrup

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The smell is very malty, with a hint of ginger and the sherry cask influence of the Black Bush. The sip leads off a bit of sourness from the lemon juice and honeyed sweetness, which quickly transitions to lots of maltiness from the whiskies. This fades into sherried fruitiness, then the slightly sharp vegetal tang of the ginger liqueur. It all finishes with just a hint of chocolate from the combination of the whiskies and the liqueur.

This drink was based off of the Lake George from The PDT Cocktail Book, with the original's Drambuie swapped out for The King's Ginger Liqueur. It isn't the most complex cocktail ever, but it uses the ingredients to good effect. The Irish and Scotch whiskies play nice together and sync up well with the ginger liqueur, which also contains a measure of whisky. A nice drink to sip on St. Patrick's Day. I hope everyone is having a good evening and stays safe.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Whisky Review: Glenfiddich Vertical Tasting

Much like the Balvenies I tried recently, I picked up a three pack of Glenfiddich miniatures over the holidays. I'll reiterate the point I made then that I feel like more distillers should be putting out these kinds of sample packs because it provides a very economical way for people to try their whiskies, especially the older end of their standard ranges. This gets people to try whiskies that they might otherwise stay away from due to cost and will probably encourage them to buy full bottles that they wouldn't otherwise be willing to take the risk of buying. Glenfiddich pulls out all of the stops with the packaging of these minis, producing custom bottles and giving each one a miniature version of the cardboard tube that the full size bottles come in. There's a reason this was put on shelves around Christmas and it is definitely a classy setup if you want to give this set as a gift. But with that said, here are my thoughts about each whisky.

Glenfiddich 12 Year

Nose: pleasantly malty, honey, citrus, apple skins, a touch of raspberries and sherry, which becomes a bit sweeter with a bit of brown sugar and maple syrup after a couple of drops of water

Taste: not very sweet up front, sour malt mid-palate, becoming cleaner malt with a bit of pepper and sherry going into the finish

Finish: slightly bitter peat, malt, pepper and sherry

It's unsurprising that this is one of the best selling single malts in the world. It presents bits and pieces of very classic Speyside single malts, with emphasis on the malt and light sherry influence. Being bottled at 40%, it goes down easy and doesn't present the drinker with anything challenging. With that said, if you prefer more robust whiskies, the 12 Year will be somewhat disappointing. Except for the malt flavors, everything is extremely light and it often felt like I had to hunt for it. At the same time, it is rather pleasant and wouldn't be out of place in a situation where you want something to drink that won't be a distraction.

Glenfiddich 15 Year

Nose: more sherry-driven, with raisins and a bit of chocolate, a strong red wine note at first, which fades with time, and a bit of malt, which becomes maltier and weaker after dilution

Taste: not very sweet up front, malt and light sherry mid-palate, with sourness and dry cacao going into the finish, which becomes sweeter and more malty with less sherry presence after adding a few drops of water

Finish: bitter chocolate with a bit of peat and malt

I had fairly high hopes for the 15 year. I really enjoyed the similarly aged Glenfiddich Distillery Edition, which was real knock-out. The standard 15 year bottling is touted as being enriched by solera-style aging, where barrels are dumped into a large vat, about half the contents are withdrawn for bottling, then more whisky is dumped to top off the vat. Theoretically this should provide a heady mix of whiskies that are aged for a minimum of 15 years and who knows what upper bound. It can even be a good deal, if you look in the right places. However, I have a feeling that the low bottling strength of 40% betrays all of the work that goes into making the whisky before it is bottled. While richer and more obviously sherry-influenced than the 12 year, it still feels a bit tepid. I would love to try the 15 year bottled around 100-proof, at which point I'm guessing it would probably shine. Instead I will content myself with my bottles of the Distillery Edition and dream of what the regular 15 year could be.

Glenfiddich 18 Year

Nose: a hefty dose of oak, orange marmalade, a bit of sherry lurking underneath, malt and chocolate oranges, which becomes lighter with more malt and less sherry and oak after dilution

Taste: not too sweet up front, a burst of sherry and cacao mid-palate, segueing into heavier oak tannins near the finish, which becomes malty sweet up front, with sherry, raisins and apples, then astringent oak after adding a few drops of water

Finish: malty sweetness, then the oak returns, bringing some peat with it

The 18 year is definitely the stand out of the bunch, which, you know, given the age and price, one would hope so. It clearly shows its age by the healthy oak smells and flavors throughout the experience. Additionally, it's generally more robust because of its 43% bottling strength. Even with all that said, I don't think I'll be buying a full bottle, even at $57. For one, I feel like the oak influence is a little too in your face, trying a bit too hard like a teenager insisting "No, really, I'm old enough!" I've got to wonder if this is an intentional move to assure buyers that they're really getting an older whisky. While there are some nice things going on, the bottling proof is still a bit on the low side (please, 46% at least!) and a bit less emphasis on the oak tannins could let the other elements shine. Give me that whisky at sixty bucks and it'd be in my liquor cabinet already.

So with all that said, I can't really fault Glenfiddich. They do what they do for a reason and it brings them in an awful lot of money. If you're new to scotch whisky, the 12 Year is a totally reasonable choice to ease yourself in. I might also suggest Glenmorangie 10 Year, which is about the same price but offers a lot of the same flavors in a slightly more robust form, or even Balvenie Doublewood. For an alternative to the 15 Year, give Arran 10 or the aforementioned Glenfiddich Distillery Edition a try. But while the Glenfiddichs aren't quite to my taste, this tri-pack is definitely worth a buy if you can find it. At ~$15, it's a nice and rather inexpensive way to do a vertical tasting for one or two people.

Monday, March 12, 2012

New Tiki Classics: the Ancient Mariner

This drink comes from Beachbum Berry himself. During the process of trying to work out the secret ingredients in the Navy Grog, Jeff came up with this drink, which is quite reminiscent of, but subtly different from, the original.

Ancient Mariner
1 oz Demerara rum
1 oz dark Jamaican rum
0.75 oz lime juice
0.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.5 oz simple syrup
0.25 oz allspice dram

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass.

The sip leads off sweetly, quickly segueing to a combination of the Jamaican and Demerara rum flavors mixed with the spice of the pimento dram. The drink finishes with the tartness of the lime juice and the slightly bitter notes of the grapefruit juice.

While not as smooth as the Navy Grog, the allspice dram adds its charms to this drink. There's a reason why the Jamaican/Demeara rum combo shows up in countless tiki drinks and the Appleton and El Dorado 12 year rums bring an incredible amount of richness to the cocktail. However, using Appleton V/X and El Dorado 5 Year would probably transform this into a more fruit-forward drink. To really pump it up, try adding a bit of the ever-useful Smith & Cross Jamaican rum. If you're interested in tweaking this drink, it would be interesting to try substituting in orgeat or cinnamon syrup to emphasize different elements of the drink.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Whisky Review: Cragganmore 12 vs. Yamazaki 12

After discovering the Brooklyn Park Pub's Whiskey Club, I decided to take a trip down the way to check out their selection of whiskies. While it leans towards bourbon and rye whiskies, there were a few single malts in stock that I'd been meaning to try. As always, these are only provisional reviews, but I feel like I got a decent sense of what's going on.

Cragganmore 12 Year

Nose: malt, fresh apple, floral, hints of sherry, which becomes a bit sweeter, with a bit of honey and chocolate, plus overall a bit more richness after adding a few drops of water

Taste: light honey heather up front, fades into drier malt, which also becomes a bit richer, with a touch of pepper near the back after dilution

Finish: very light, with a bit of peat and cacao

This whisky is one of the Speyside offerings from Diageo. It feels a lot like a younger Glenfiddich, but with a bit more richness. Unfortunately it's also significantly more expensive than the 12 year old Glenfiddich, which makes it a bit of a tricky sell to me. But if lighter whiskies are a thing you like, this is a good one to try.

Yamazaki 12 Year

Nose: a healthy dose of toasty oak, bright, fresh fruits, sweet malt and vanilla, which becomes a bit lighter and more perfumed, with less oak and more brown sugar, a general ruminess, and sweetened porridge after dilution

Taste: honey and brown sugar up front, an interlude of pepper, cinnamon and oak, then cocoa powder, which gets more sugary and malty, with a bit less oak

Finish: berries, malt and cacao

Now this is more like it. One of the younger whiskies from Suntory, this is quite reminiscent of a Speyside single malt. At the same time, it also reminds me quite a bit of Scarlet Ibis rum, both because of the toasty oak and general rummy flavors. I was much happier with this dram and will probably buy a whole bottle to explore it more. Also looking forward to trying its elder 18 year old brother.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

New Tiki Classics: the Marlin

While much of the tiki canon was created around the middle of the 20th century, that hasn't stopped people from innovating, especially over the last decade. This one comes from Clancy Carroll via Beachbum Berry Remixed and is presented with only a few minor tweaks.

1 oz amber rhum agricole
1 oz light rum
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.5 oz orange liqueur
0.5 oz orgeat
0.25 oz simple syrup

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and strain into a chilled rocks glass rinsed with Maraschino liqueur.

This is a riff on the classic mai tai made brighter, both literally and figuratively. The original calls for blue curaçao, giving the drink an almost sky blue hue. I don't have any around, so I went with my standard orange-kumquat liqueur. The original is also spiced up with a hefty dose of Maraschino liqueur. I find that it all too easily overwhelms a drink, so I went with a smaller rinse and added back in sweetness with simple syrup. The light rum is intended to be Puerto Rican, but I think this cocktail works fantastically with a dose of Banks 5 Island to compliment the agricole funkiness.

The smell is dominated by the Batavia arrack in the Banks 5 Island rum. Poking around it is the spicy notes of the Maraschino. The sip leads off with the rum's funkiness, leading into sweet & sour from the citrus and syrups, finishing up on the peculiar notes of the Maraschino liqueur. Slipping through everything is the orange liqueur and orgeat, which help to smooth things out. Overall this is a really tasty drink and a great way to tame the strong flavors of rhum agricole. With that said, you'll want something robust to punch through all of the other strong flavors in this drink.